Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
When reading reviews of "Garden State", the two words you'll encounter most are "The" and "Graduate". So, in an attempt to get the obligatory reference to "The Graduate" out of the way early, here is a 2-for-1 plot summary:
A young Jewish man, recently arrived home again after a long spell away, apathetically contemplates his future. He spends his days wandering around in a haze, barely having enough energy to participate in conversation, or even make eye contact. He meets a vivacious and engaging young woman who lights a fire within him, and gives him reason to go on living. Throw in a Simon & Garfunkel song (or 4), mix well, and serve.
The differences, between Mike Nichols zeitgeist-defining hit from 1967 and Zach Braff's eager debut as writer/director, are slight. Andrew "Large" Largeman, our protagonist here, is not a college student looking to start a career. He's an actor/waiter looking to start a career. He's home not to mark the end of his school days, but to bury his mother. And, unlike Benjamin Braddock, who spent much time hiding from the world at the bottom of his parents' pool, Largeman can't swim. Comically so.
Braff's world, which is supposedly based on his life growing up in South Orange, New Jersey, is often just a step or two from the edge of quirky. But the young director has the good sense to pull back before things lose their reality. He's a created a world that certainly has credibility, and is confident enough to allow a modicum of weirdness to seep in, though not enough to topple the whole thing over into absurdity.
Braff, who wears three hats on this project, acquits himself well on all accounts. As writer, he's crafted an endearingly-episodic tale, that doesn't rely narrative momentum to provide its propulsion. That task is taken by the relationships he's crafted between his fully-formed characters.
As director, he never lets scenes go on too long, gets wonderful performances from his co-stars, and has a low-key but interesting visual style, which shows off a limber comic touch. In moments, watching "Garden State" feels like watching one of the old "Airplane" or "Naked Gun" movies, so loaded is it with visual site gags: a doctor's office features a wall so packed to the brim with diplomas they've started to overflow on to the ceiling; one corner of a small suburban house is dominated by the world's largest hamster habitrail; Braff even uses himself as a canvas for weirdness, spending the entirety of one scene with the word "BALLS" printed on his forehead. The danger, here, is that the visual punning could overtake the film, and turn it into something less than realistic. But Braff seems to have a healthy internal joke-meter; he knows where the line between comedy and reality lies, and never crosses it. He spends most of the movie straddling it, but never goes over to the other side.
As an actor, he makes Large appealing, even though the boy has to spend the first third of the movie nearly mute and detached emotionally. He's the kind of character that's only comfortable "being other people", and who takes medication to keep from being himself. That kind of emotional repressiveness can get dull, after a while, but Braff keeps things interesting and watchable throughout. His comic timing is spot-on, and his deadpan reactions are mined for even more laughs, while providing the film with a grounded centre, around which the other oddball characters can orbit.
Natalie Portman plays the object of Large's affection, a compulsive liar named Samantha. I've often found it quite easy to maintain a crush on Portman, a quality that she uses to her advantage here. For the audience, and Large, are supposed to find Sam's quirks and eccentricities appealing. Portman, with her movie star cheekbones and pixyish giggle, does well in that regard. Sometimes the character comes across as little more than a device (after all, she exists just so Large can fall in love with her), but Portman gives her a sad humanity that makes her all the more real.
Peter Sarsgaard, whose performance in "Shattered Glass" was so good and so low-key I didn't realize until the end of that movie that he was the main character, is equally as good here as one of Large's old stoner buddies. His Mark is a gravedigger with big dreams. Or, at the very least, with a number of really small and almost-inconsequential dreams. He steals jewelry from the dead he buries, has a nice side-business returning merchandise he never bought to the local hardware store, and even collects Desert Storm trading cards. All in an attempt to get-rich-slow. Sarsgaard, with his squinty eyes and laid-back demeanor, essays a character that we should easily hate, but wind up liking against our better intentions.
Musically, things don't begin well. An apparently drunken (or retarded) aunt butchers her way through 'Three Times a Lady', in a misguided (but intentionally funny) attempt to give the funeral scene some emotional weight. But once that joke has worn off, Braff does wonders mining the ore of indie rock (not to mention the My Music folder on my computer) for emotionally-satisfying nuggets of gold. The Shins acquit themselves well, with 'New Slang' and 'Caring is Creepy'. The former, which wouldn't sound out of place on the "Rushmore" soundtrack, is described in the movie as the kind of song that will "change your life". While that's lofty praise, it's easy to believe, in this context, how it could touch Large so deeply ("But my head's to the wall and I'm lonely
I'm looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find"). The latter wouldn't sound out of place on a New Pornographers' album, and doesn't sound out of place in "Garden State". Also included, most pleasingly, is Iron & Wine's acoustic cover of the Postal Service's 'Such Great Heights'. "Everything looks perfect from far away," goes the laid-back refrain. It's a fitting message for a movie about a character who does his best to keep people at a distance, only to find that when he does "come down now", they're likely to stay close to him.
The film's biggest failing -- and it doesn't have any others worth mentioning, quite frankly -- is its ending. After 100-minutes worth of delicious but fragmented storytelling, showing no allegiance to the rules of filmmaking or the Hollywood aesthetic, Braff stumbles and gives us a trite denouement. In any other teenage RomCom fantasy, it would make perfect sense for the characters to do what the characters do here. Because we've already been told that they are bland and common. But "Garden State" aspires to uniqueness; it tells us over and over that its characters are on a quest for originality, are engaged in battle against normalcy, and are praying at the altar of weirdness. Even though I could relate to the ending -- for it's one that I've almost lived in my own life -- it doesn't serve the story well and doesn't feel credible coming from these characters. With a bit of tweaking, Braff could have come up with something more satisfying. Something like, say, the rest of this delightful and endearing film.
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